Pay homage to Lal Bahadur Shastri on his 50th death
anniversary. His death in Tashkent, Uzbekistan half a century ago robbed India,
of many cherished possibilities which might have led the country to greater
glory. From this aspect, his life which was tragically cut short at the age of
61 can be regarded as one of unfulfilled expectations.
The time of his ascent to the prime minister’s position after Jawaharlal
Nehru’s death provided the first inklings of his own high capabilities and the
assurance of a smooth succession in a nascent democracy.
The uneventful transition, brokered by the strong, silent man of Indian
politics at the time, K Kamaraj, provided the much-needed sense of continuity
which was necessary after years of speculation in India and abroad about
“After Nehru, who?”
As The Statesman wrote in an editorial/obituary, quoting a Tagore poem,
that just as earthen lamps were lit in the gathering darkness after the sun had
set, Shastri was “India’s earthen lamp in an hour of destiny”.
The imagery reflected Shastri’s quiet, earthy, soothing, understated
personality in contrast to Nehru’s dazzling flamboyance. It took time for the
ordinary people to become accustomed to the fact that Nehru’s successor was not
an Oxbridge man, but an unassuming person from Kashi Vidyapith. In the
newsreels of the time, people used to burst into laughter as the meek,
short-statured Shastri appeared on the cinema hall screens.
But it did not take long for the ridicule to turn into admiration after
the 1965 war against Pakistan which saw the Indian Army advancing towards
Lahore. After the humiliation of the 1962 conflict with China during which
Shastri and other Congressmen had compelled Nehru to remove VK Krishna Menon
from the defence minister’s post, the 1965 war raised the new prime minister’s
prestige sky high.
His “Jai jawan, Jai kisan” slogan of the time is still
remembered, as is his decision to resign as the railway minister in 1956
following an accident which claimed 144 lives. Nehru described the resignation as
an act of “constitutional propriety”, which hasn’t been emulated by
any other railway minister since then.
The 1965 war was however not the only time when Shastri revealed the
steeliness of his personality. This side of his character could be seen within
days of his assuming office when he dropped the acerbic Morarji Desai from the
cabinet for insisting on the No.2 position. Shastri also constituted the prime
minister’s secretariat, which is the precursor of today’s Prime Minister’s
office (PMO).
For the Congress, Shastri was the ideal man for enabling the party to
retain not only its primacy of position in politics but also for reinvigorating
the ideals of Gandhian simplicity and honesty which the party was gradually
beginning to lose.
In this respect, Shastri’s down-to-earth nature revived the Congress at
the grassroots level by making the ordinary people remember the sterling
qualities which had marked the party during the independence movement.
Had he lived, there is little doubt that the Congress would have
retained its influence for a longer period than it has been able to do.
Not only that, the greatest service which a normal spell of life would
have enabled Shastri to render to his party was to nullify the dynastic factor
by creating a big enough gap in terms of years between Nehru’s death and the
succession of his progeny.
It is even possible that Nehru’s descendants might not have made it to
the top at all if the party had developed in a normal way instead of turning
into a “feudal oligarchy”, as prime minister Rajiv Gandhi said on the
occasion of the Congress’s centenary celebrations in 1985.
Unfortunately, there was a gap of a mere year-and-a-half between Nehru’s
death in May 1964 and Shastri’s in January 1966. Moreover, Indira Gandhi’s
ascent as prime minister in January 1966 and her long tenure as well as that of
her son, Rajiv, ensured that Congressmen began to associate their party so
closely with the Nehru-Gandhis that the latter retained the whiphand even when
the party was not in power.
The ill-effects of this association between the dynasty and its
sycophants have undermined the Congress’s idealism and political health.
Shastri took charge at a time when the country’s morale was at a low ebb
after the 1962 setback. It would sink even lower after his death with the
Congress experiencing its first major electoral defeats in the 1967 assembly
But, unknown to Shastri, the 1965 war had set in motion the process of
Pakistan’s disintegration as it led to Ayub Khan’s ouster, Yahya Khan’s installation
and the liberation of Bangladesh.
Of the two prime ministers from outside the Nehru-Gandhi clan who will
be remembered by history, Shastri will be held in high esteem because he
represented the “idea of India” as a secular, multicultural nation governed
by high-minded leaders.
As a believer in a “socialist democracy”, he was different
from PV Narasimha Rao, who followed another path of development by opening up
the economy. But the two together underline their party’s potential for
adapting to the exigencies of varying periods when it is not stifled by feudal


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